The 1990s was a good decade for Jennifer Jason Leigh. She was not only prolific, flirting with mainstream films like Backdraft (1991), but also at the height of her creative powers, turning out one astonishing performance after another, disappearing into her roles with chameleon-like proficiency. It was also the decade where she tackled her most challenging roles in a way that threatened to alienate the critics and her fans. In Georgia (1995), she played a struggling musician who has the heart but not the talent as evident in an excruciatingly awful cover of a Van Morrison song that goes on for so long that it tests the resolve of even the most die-hard Leigh fan.
She also tackled stylized, almost impenetrable accents in The Hudsucker Proxy (1993), the Coen brothers’ homage to screwball comedies, and her crowning achievement, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), where she portrayed legendary writer Dorothy Parker with incredible accuracy. The film was directed by Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph, a talented filmmaker with a frustratingly uneven filmography. With Altman attached as producer, Rudolph was able to assemble an impressive cast – a who’s who of ‘90s character actors, like Campbell Scott, Lili Taylor and James LeGros; and survivors from the 1980s, like Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals and Andrew McCarthy. It is to Rudolph’s credit that he is able to handle such a large and diverse cast, so much so that a cheat sheet is almost required in order to keep track of who everyone is. Admittedly, Rudolph plays large portions of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle fast and loose, letting this talented cast run with their characters. For the most part it works, especially the scenes that take place in the Algonquin Hotel.
Dorothy Parker’s heyday was in New York City during the Roaring Twenties where she was part of a thriving literary scene known as “the era of giants.” She got her start writing captions for lingerie ads at Vanity Fair magazine and worked her way up to drama critic, an unheard of position for a woman at that time. She quickly made enemies with her scathing reviews. Parker was fired and became a freelancer along with her close friend and editor Robert Benchley who quit the magazine in protest. She and other New York writers lunched at the Rose Room of the Algonquin Hotel in gatherings they cheekily referred to as “board meetings.” She eventually married screenwriter Alan Campbell and wrote scripts for several Hollywood films but loathed the process and studio machinations in general.
We first meet Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Hollywood circa 1937 where she runs into Benchley (Campbell Scott). Even though they’re both married they still flirt with each other by trading witty barbs. After they go their separate ways, a stagehand says to Parker, “Must’ve been so colorful in the ‘20s,” to which she replies, “Was it? I barely remember.” This entire sequence is shot in black and white and has a melancholy air to it, accentuated by Mark Isham’s moody jazz score. The film proceeds to flash back to the 1920s and changes to color with a slight sepia tone as if we’re looking at old photographs.
We see the creation of the famous Algonquin Round Table as it starts off with three people ordering food which then grows into five and quickly expands from there until the best and the brightest literary minds in New York City converge on a regular basis to eat, drink and banter endlessly with one another. These scenes demonstrate Altman’s influence on Rudolph as people talk over each other and the overlapping dialogue forces one to follow whatever conversation they please. As the scenes in the Algonquin continue, the table gets larger to accommodate all of the people and the dialogue flies fast and furious. It’s a veritable feast for lovers of witty repartee. In fact, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle often feels and looks like the best Altman film he never made.
Right from the get-go, Jennifer Jason Leigh disappears into her role complete with Dorothy Parker’s distinctive way of speaking. The actress certainly looks the part with her bob haircut and vintage outfits. However, it is Parker’s trademark scathing wit that Leigh nails perfectly. It is her devotion to the characters she plays and her willingness to give herself completely over to them that is one of her most admirable traits. She’s not afraid to show the darker side of the characters she portrays and Dorothy Parker is no different as we see the famous writer undergo a painful abortion and, in another scene, come across as a boozy mess (and yet Leigh still looks great) that attempts suicide by cutting her wrists with a straight razor. It’s a hard scene to watch not because Rudolph shows it (he doesn’t) but we hear it and our imagination fills in the rest. It is so much fun just to see the way she carries herself in any give scene. The actress makes it all look so effortless as it almost seems like she’s channeling Parker. However, this uncanny representation of Parker divided critics, some of whom found her accent impenetrable. Regardless, it’s a brave performance and an absolute crime that Leigh didn’t get nominated or win an Academy Award for her efforts.
The rest of the cast follows her lead, especially Campbell Scott as her best friend and confidante. Leigh and Scott have fantastic chemistry together and do a great job of conveying the unrequited love that existed between Parker and Benchley like the proverbial elephant in the room in the sense that they never address it. However, they do flirt with each other and a typical exchange involves her telling him, “I could kiss you but I’m not sure it would come out right,” to which he replies, “You’re afraid you might melt the gold in my teeth.” Scott is Leigh’s ideal foil as he captures Benchley’s idiosyncratic mannerisms and slightly nervous speech pattern. Scott really shines in a scene where, during a theatrical review featuring the Round Table regulars, Benchley delivers a financial report. Initially, it looks like he’s going to flop in a big way as he dryly rattles off facts. Scott nails his character’s nervous tics and awkward physical gestures. And then an interesting thing happens – Benchley gradually wins over the audience with his awkward shtick. Scott pulls it off with a showstopping performance.
Alan Rudolph was fascinated with writers from the Round Table as a child and this manifested itself in his love for Gluyas Williams’ illustrations in a collection of Robert Benchley’s amusing essays. After making The Moderns (1988), a film about American expatriates in 1920s Paris, he wanted to tackle a fact-based drama set in the same era. He began work on a screenplay with Randy Sue Coburn entitled, Mrs. Parker. In 1992, Rudolph attended a Fourth of July party hosted by Robert Altman who introduced him to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Rudolph was surprised by her physical resemblance to Dorothy Parker and impressed with her knowledge about the Jazz Age.
The screenplay originally focused on the platonic relationship between Parker and Benchley but this did not appeal to any financial backers. There still were no takers even when Altman came on board as producer. The emphasis on Parker was the next change to the script but Rudolph still had no luck finding financing for “a period biography of a literate woman.” Altman finally stepped up and bullied Fine Line Features and Miramax Pictures – two studios he was making films for – to team up, with the former releasing Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle domestically and the latter handling foreign distribution. Altman claimed that he forced the film to be made by putting his own money into it and “I put other projects of mine hostage to it. I did a lot of lying.” He and Rudolph were able to raise the money for the $7 million budget but this didn’t come through until four weeks into principal photography.
Leigh was so committed to doing the film that she agreed to be in it for “a 10th of what I normally get for a film.” The rest of the cast followed her lead and agreed to work for much lower than their usual salaries. She did a great amount of research for the role and said, “I wanted to be as close to her as I possibly could.” To this end, Leigh stayed for a week at the Algonquin and read Parker’s entire body of work while there. She also listened repeatedly to the two existing audio recordings of the writer in order to perfect Parker’s distinctive voice. Leigh found that Parker “had a sensibility that I understand very, very well. A sadness. A depression.”
Rudolph shot the film in Montreal because the building facades in its old city section most closely resembled period New York City. The Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel was recreated at two-thirds scale on a soundstage. Rudolph invited the actors to write their own dialogue which resulted in a chaotic first couple of days of principal photography. Campbell Scott remembered, “everyone hung on to what they knew about their characters and just sort of threw it out there.” They trusted their director implicitly during the 40-day shoot. The cast stayed in a run-down hotel dubbed Camp Rudolph and engaged in all-night poker games. Leigh chose not to participate in these activities, preferring instead to stay in character on and off camera.
Originally entitled, Mrs. Parker and the Round Table, it was changed to "Vicious Circle" because New Line was worried that people would think of King Arthur and not Dorothy Parker. In anticipation of the film’s release Altman admitted that “ it’s going to be a tough sell. We’re talking about literacy.” A rough cut was screened at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and predictably divided critics. There were rumors that after this screening Leigh re-recorded several scenes that were criticized for being too difficult to understand because of her accent but she denied that this was done. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle was generally well-received by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and felt that the film was “best appreciated, I think, by those who already know the players around the Round Table, and have read some of their work. Others are likely to wonder what the fuss was about.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Leigh for giving “a disturbing, emotionally raw performance.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle also praised Leigh’s performance for giving “as bold a performance as ever, outlining the extreme personality of writer Dorothy Parker with equally extreme choices in manner and speech – and then inhabiting that outline with quirky delicacy and subtleties of feeling.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin found that “there are major gaps, like the absence of any significant mention of Dorothy Parker's left-wing political passions. But this film crams a remarkable amount of fact and nuance into the telling of its wrenchingly sad story.” The film failed to wow Entertainment Weekly, however, which gave it a “C+” rating. Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The question the movie fails to come to grips with is: How do you get audiences to care about a woman who, in the end, didn't give a damn about herself?”
The great tragedy of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is that Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley were so obviously in love with each other and yet never worked up the courage to express their true feelings for one another. Despite being a part of such a vibrant artistic and social scene, Parker is often portrayed as a sad, lonely figure. Rudolph’s film portrays her as a complex person that wrote out of a great pain. She was brilliant and a trailblazer for her time. She never found the true happiness that she sought with Benchley and resigned herself to an unhappy life but out of this produced some great literature that has stood the test of time.